Ultimately casting always makes or breaks a spot. If you have a good actor, it allows you so much more time to try other things as you're not just struggling to pull a performance out of someone. I just make sure that I can see the most people possible in the time we have for pre-production.
Of course, great spots often come down to great material. From there it's really about staying open to change and reacting to things along the way to let the material evolve to the best place possible.
I find that having a good crew makes such a difference. Not just in technical ability, but in attitude and energy, as the mood on set often seems to transfer into the work. A stressful environment isn't necessarily the mark of focus and determination. Things can go smoothly and you can still get great work.
What do you wish you had known when you were just starting out?
That jobs can evolve. I think when I was starting out I was quick to dismiss a board that wasn't perfect. If you see a script that isn't quite there, it's worth figuring out how to make it work for you and proposing that. Often the creatives had written great material that got watered down in the process and really want to figure out how to make what's there get back to where they were. If you can offer a take on how to execute the material, they can often use your energy to move the project back to somewhere good. It's also important to be shooting as much as you can. You learn so much from experience. The more you're on set, the easier it becomes to understand how to get what you need in the most efficient way possible.
On another level, it's important to look at the bigger picture in terms of commercial production. You may be talented, but if the experience of working with you is a nightmare, people won't come back. This isn't just about the on-set experience, but it's about being aware of the company that represents you and the way they interact and work with agencies.
What are you still trying to figure out about the job?
There's always a challenge in finding a balance between your personal creative work and your commercial work. I enjoy both—but think it's important to make the time for each as they both allow you different types of creative experiences that inform the other and make both stronger.
In terms of shooting, it constantly amazes me how you can think you've exhausted every option, every alternate line, and just as you're about to move on, someone throws out a new idea and it ends up being the one thing that makes the spot really work. You really have to try to constantly open yourself up to 180 degree turns.
Watch some of Smith's spots
Read more from the 2009 Directors Special Report